DJs Hold Secret Of A Memorable Vacay In Their Hands: So Listen Up, Fellas!
I first went to Gros Islet Friday in 1989; that’s a gargantuan, miniscule 25 years ago practically to the day—which I’ve just this minute realised! And it was so cool, full of rumbling roots reggae and sweet brassy calypso, the air full of barbecue chicken aromas and the call of beer vendors you could haggle with—especially if your round was a dozen Heineken for a gang of young, professional Brits on their first life-changing foray to Caribbean climes. Or 12 Carib, or Red Stripe – believe it or not, there was no Piton Beer in those days.
Gros Islet jump up was everything we hoped for from a Saint Lucian vacation at the end of the eighties—a real, authentic melée of locals and visitors, supping cold beer by the neck, dancing in the street to beloved Bob Marley anthems and learning the words of Congo Man and Miss Mary by our newly discovered musical obsession and “vacation song provider,” the Mighty Sparrow.
We were hosted and guided through the fortnight odyssey by our hospitably feisty and long-suffering friend Melton, into whose New Village rum shop we injected a good portion of our spending money—slugging down freezing cold Cokes out of classic glass bottles, or satisfying a sugar craving with the ice-cream-chemical flavour of an exotically local champagne soft drink after a hot trek around the market.
Over the course of two weeks we met and shared a nip of Bounty with the Rough and the Smooth, and all sorts of great fellas from the yard, spent hours on the beach eating barbecued chicken and drinking the best Denros-based rum punch ever, picked up a few patois nuggets like “sa ka fet?” and “toujou sou” and felt like we were totally different from the “tourists” who we scorned for never leaving the Halcyon Beach Hotel without an organised tour and a Banana Cow in a plastic cup.
In fact, I was so besotted by Saint Lucia and the life my English friend—wife of the aforementioned Melton—was living, that I invited myself back in 1990, then again in ’92, and every time we had at least one ritual visit to Gros Islet jump-up, which changed little over the years—other than the growing size of the crowd.
Fast forward quarter of a century—and pause while I scrape myself off the floor from the realisation that my life changed that fortnight in May ’89, not least because we arrived home from a St Lucian dream to the early morning English broadsheets full of the horrors of the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4th. Suffice to say it was an unforgettable, emotive and destiny-changing period of my young adult life.
Because three years later I met, fell in love with and married a fella from Castries; we started our family in 1994 and raised two great kids who are now big grown up people who have themselves been going to Gros Islet Friday for a few years now, hence my fairly recent rediscovery of the street party after years of being a responsible mom.
Hitting Gros Islet around 11pm is a great way to kick off, or ruin, your weekend (depending on alcohol intake and longevity of visit), but its appeal is perennial and particularly Lucian. It sure has grown over the years, and many of the improvements are invaluable, like the plethora of toilet facilities which were practically non-existent back in the day, and the craft vendors’ stalls—at least the ones who source their wares locally and not from Miami.
But I digress. The point is that for most locals, including expats and second-homers, Gros Islet night starts around midnight, long after wherever your early evening lime may take you. From midnight the village is jammed into the wee hours, and despite the ups and downs of the various seasons—hell, even Boujis has its off nights—Gros Islet rocks fifty-one Fridays of the year. Other than the “Good” one when by law it shuts down and people drink themselves silly at home.
What I noticed on a recent visit to Gros Islet Friday was that much earlier, between nine and eleven pm, the tourists are bussed in for organised visits, and the street party has a very different vibe all together. These days there are arts and crafts and stalls and bars; restaurants at the top of Tripadvisor and a fish-fry where patrons snake around the property for fresh catch of the day.
Hundreds of visitors are still charmed by the idea of street-dancing and cold beers and barbecue and Bob. Gros Islet has its ups and downs with minor crime and the odd major incident, but there’s no doubt it is a labour-of-love success for the village and the national tourism product, sustaining itself year after year —in large part by word of mouth and reputation—as one of the really unique attractions on the island.
Which would be the perfect launch-pad for Saint Lucian musicians, wouldn’t you say? No brainer, I would agree.
At least until I headed for Gros Islet on the Friday before last Carnival at the ungodly early hour of 9.30pm, after an epically failed attempt to attend Panorama which is a different tale altogether. Threading through the village, it was definitely tourist-time, which I say affectionately because after all I am a twenty-five year veteran of the visitor vibe, a chronic tourist, if you will. Heck, I even get to study the species as Editor of Tropical Traveller, and what I have found is that in general they are a straightforward bunch with predictable expectations.
And one of those expectations is that if they go to Gros Islet street party on a Friday during their vacay they will dance in the street. Fair enough, right? Well, that’s not what I saw from the balcony of that rather swish bar on the corner overlooking the heart of the village. I saw a couple of hundred visitors clutching Pitons in hand, standing around an invisible perimeter watching a lone ten year old krumping to the Caribbean sounds of . . . not Bob Marley, not Sparrow, not even J Mouse or DYP or Ezra, given that it was Friday before Carnival.
No. The DJ looked out at the shining sea of sun-kissed white faces and decided to play “Ah-ah-ah-ah Stayin’ Alive” then “Celebrate Good Times – Come On!” and “Oh-no-not-I, I Will Survive!” like bloody Studio 54 in the late seventies. This ridiculous retro playlist went on and on, while the tourists stood on and on, and suddenly I realised from my maco-perfect perch that the good people of Gros Islet have made one dangerously fundamental error in their planning: They hired the wrong DJ.
Nothing personal. I don’t know who he is and I have no intention to brag, but I was a DJ at uni when vinyl was it, and despite the transition through cassettes, CDs, Napster, iPods and the rise of the common disc-spinner to global superstar status à la Fat Boy Slim, the premise is simple.
If you are playing to an empty dance floor surrounded by bored punters, you need to change tack and give them what they want—music to dance to.
Back to the Gros Islet jump-up, and finally the Caribbean music hit the turntable or whatever gadget 21st century DJs use. Was it Mongstar’s instantly unforgettable favourite ‘Saint Lucia We Love’? Or even the social-climbing themed but catchy local road march ‘No Stoosh’?
Nope. Just as the buses rolled up to carry their precious cargo back to AC’d rooms and a last order of Banana Cows, the DJ hauled up with oldie goldie Bajan tunes “Pump me up wit de music” and “Whine up to my bum-sy boy and . . .”
Why-yai-yai? If nothing’s sweeter than Lucian Carnival, where the hell was the local vaval vibe at Gros Islet on that bacchanal launchpad of a Friday night? At least from nine to eleven when the keenest customers of our culture were out on the prowl . . .
Let’s face it, DJs: It’s not brain surgery! The white people are happy to leave their own music behind and revel in—well, the revelling! They just want to hear a mix of classic reggae tunes, a bit of lovers’ rock and the latest soca jams—preferably with an addictively easy chorus to holler along to—and that should include local artistes by priority. Add a cold Piton to the best of Saint Lucian music and watch Gros Islet Friday party vibe become a legend in the Caribbean tourism market.
But that’s definitely not the case with my young visiting friends who were here for a month before carnival and went on a marathon liming spree all around the north of the island. Their 2014 vacation song will be ‘Too Real’ by Trinidadian Kerwin Dubois, just as mine 25 years ago was Trini calypso legend Sparrow. They’ll play it to their mates a few times [you had to be there] then shuffle forward to the Saint Lucian temporary national anthem ‘Hurt It’ after a day or two; maybe the soaring chorus of ‘Ka-ba-we-EH!’ will last a few plays longer, but when those gals come back to Saint Lucia in 25 years time, they’ll still be singing “That bumper is too real—it’s dangerous!” and not fully understanding the lyrics.
Lesson to Gros Islet Vendors Association?
Please promote our local music—good or bad. The dancing tourists will vote with their feet, and the best Saint Lucian anthems will be exported on the iPhones and in the memories of tens of thousands of visitors who offer the island its best chance of spreading the word about our music industry.
And to Gros Islet DJs—please give the 70s disco playlist a permanent break on Friday nights and promote Saint Lucia’s local talent to the appreciative hordes. Nobody will miss The Bee Gees. After all, Sandals has that covered.
Dee Lundy-Charles is Freelance Editor of SHE Caribbean and Tropical Traveller Saint Lucia.